In 1998, 21 year old student, Matthew Shepard, was brutally attacked and left for dead by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. As a shocked nation turned its attention to the small community, substantial coverage was given of the homophobic nature of the murder. A month after the attack, Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project set off to Laramie, Wyoming. Over the course of the year they conducted around 200 interviews with citizens of Laramie as the world’s media focused on this intimate society and horrifying trial. The end result was The Laramie Project, a harrowing exposure of human nature.
This is a production that uses very few props or costume changes throughout. The cast all wear a black top and jeans, making small subtle additions throughout to denote different characters. It is a scant set of chairs, blocks and a black backdrop. This is not a traditionally graphic play, with little to no action on set. However, director Nataliea Abramowitz pulls the audience in by exploiting the intimacy of the Barron. As a result, scenes such as the circle of angels in crudely cut tunics are all the more haunting.
The visual simplicity is perhaps to compensate for the complexity of the script and the constantly changing characters. Each actor performs a number of parts, some of which recur throughout and others that appear only once. Every character shares their part of the story, their views and thoughts on the trial and the crime. The story is presented through a series of short monologues and dialogues, the speaker standing while the other actors are seated on stage. They laugh, mutter ascent or disgust, constantly reacting to the speaker through gestures, facial expressions and beautifully directed body language. The result is somewhat overwhelming for the audience, and yet why shouldn’t it be? The audience is made to feel the turmoil and impact of this event on the citizens of Laramie. It is overwhelming, confusing, fast paced and constantly evolving; a vocal collage of human nature. At the same time however, Abramowitz uses the simplicity of costume to emphasise the familiarity of the audience with the eight actors on stage, thus evoking the sense of intimacy and community that the citizens of Laramie shared. This is a play that does not shy away from the darkness but in doing so exposes the light, the amazing feats of human compassion and understanding that such events can unearth.
The conflicting and fierce attitudes toward homosexuality are brought to life by some truly powerful performances. Notably Charlotte Kelly and Louis Catliff step seamlessly from character to character, demonstrating an impressive range and depth. Catliff’s energetic and fervent portrayal of the young convict and anti-gay minister was exceptional; while Kelly’s kindly but feisty Marge was both evocative and heart-warming. However, the most memorable performance was Elliot Douglas’ Aaron Kriefles, a truly haunting portrayal of the witness whom discovered the body of Matthew Shepard. The entire cast were outstanding, slipping from each personage with grace and ease, producing an entire town before the intimate audience of the Barron. In particular, Brianna Chu’s constant animation and reactions throughout the play kept the stage alive.
In short, this is an elegant and eloquent production that exposes the raw, beating heart of human nature. With an astounding cast, and beautiful direction The Laramie Project is an example of student theatre at its finest. A play of strong, shocking and heart-breaking opinions that presents a candid account of homophobia that is sure to capture everyone’s attention. If The Laramie Project doesn’t leave you breathless, it will certainly leave you speechless.